Editors' note: Due to the changing competitive landscape, we've lowered the Tab's overall score to 7. Check out CNET Tablet page for our latest tablet reviews.
Since the arrival of the Apple iPad in April of 2010, we've seen a handful of competitors step up with inexpensive tablet alternatives in all shapes and sizes. With the Galaxy Tab, Samsung has created a true peer of the iPad: an uncompromising product that stakes out new territory in terms of both design and features.
Unlike the 9.7-inch iPad and its Apple iOS software, the Tab's screen measures 7 inches diagonally and runs Google's Android 2.2 operating system. U.S. Cellular's version of the Tab sells for $399 with a two-year contract and your choice of monthly data plans. Data plans come in two versions: a $54.99 plan with a 5GB cap, and a $74.99 plan with a 5GB cap and unlimited text messages. The carrier also offers a version of the Tab priced at $499, with monthly plans starting at $14.99 with a 200MB cap. Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T all have similar versions of the Tab, though pricing and plan options vary.
Tablets are only as good as their screens, and the Tab's screen is a glossy beauty with the strength of a beast, thanks to a protective layer of Corning Gorilla glass. The LCD underneath it is a crisp 1,024x600-pixel resolution, which is on par with the iPad, but since the screen is about half the size, the pixel density is much tighter. The screen uses a capacitive, multitouch technology that can match the iPad in both response time and usefulness. Not once did we catch ourselves cursing at it--at least, not in the same threatening tone as we used with the Dell Streak or the Archos 7 Home Tablet.
Above the screen you have a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera, perfect for self-portrait photos or video chat (though no video chat software comes preinstalled). Across the bottom you have the typical Android-style buttons for menu, home, back, and search. There's a standard headphone jack on the top, volume and power buttons on the side, along with a microSD card slot. For this model from U.S. Cellular, a 16GB card came installed.
Samsung's dock connector and a pair of built-in speakers are located on the bottom edge. The dock connector works with the included USB adapter and power brick, but can also be used for accessories, such as a keyboard dock or video output adapter.
On the back of the Tab you'll see a smooth black plastic back and a more impressive 3-megapixel camera with an integrated flash. The camera can capture video at a maximum resolution of 720x480 pixels at 30 frames per second.
Overall, the Tab, at 7.5 inches tall by 4.7 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick, has a solid, paperback book feel that can be comfortably grasped in one hand. Unlike the Apple iPad, we never felt that we needed to set the Tab on our lap or cross our legs just to use it comfortably. For better or worse, it operates and behaves just like a giant Android smartphone, requiring little to no learning curve to navigate menus, type e-mails, or browse the Web.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of what the Tab has to offer, let's state for the record that the two best features of the Tab are the least complicated to understand. First off, you have the size--which is smaller, lighter, and more convenient than the iPad. Second, there's the full, undiluted Android 2.2 experience, complete with third-party apps, and the official Android Market for all the latest and greatest apps. We've seen other Android tablets this same size, but none running Android 2.2 with Market support. Similarly, we've seen tablets like the Dell Streak that offer the Android Market, but the size is cramped and the OS isn't yet up to 2.2. Currently, only the Galaxy Tab hits this "just right" Goldilocks zone among Android tablets, and that's what makes it exciting.
When you unlock the Tab's touch screen, you'll find a familiar home screen with a floating Google search bar, dock icons for e-mail, Web browser, and a drawer for apps. Hold the Tab in either portrait or landscape view, and the built-in accelerometer sensor will reorient the screen automatically. By default, the Tab includes five main home screens, which you can jump between by flicking left or right. Beyond the core apps in the dock (mail, Web, drawer), two of the five home screens come with preinstalled apps for YouTube, text messaging, news and weather widgets, and more.
You have to dig a little deeper to appreciate the work Samsung did to differentiate the Tab experience from its line of premium Android smartphones. Spend some time in the app drawer, and you'll find that seemingly benign apps like Contacts, Calendar, and Memo have all been optimized by Samsung for the larger screen, using split-screen views and nested tabs to take advantage of the added screen real estate.
Most Android apps, unfortunately, aren't yet designed for the larger screens of tablets. It's a complaint you'll hear echoed in all of our Android tablet reviews so far. With all the extra room, some apps stretch unnaturally to fill the space (Pandora), whereas others appear like large print versions of their original smartphone incarnations. Until Google commits to the tablet form and offers developers and consumers a way to distinguish tablet-optimized apps from smartphone apps, this is going to be a recurring headache for everyone.
In spite of some frustrations, there are quite a few things the Galaxy Tab nails dead on that will get Apple fanboys flustered. Because the Tab includes GPS, the included navigation app does an excellent job as an in-car navigation device, offering turn-by-turn directions, points of interest, and voice search (via the integrated microphone).